Washington Philosophy Circle
(formerly Washington Philosophy Meetup)

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007
7 p.m., Teaism, 400 8th Street NW, Washington, DC. Lower level.
Discussion Topic: William Blake's Manuscript Lyrics (In Commemoration of Blake’s 250th Birthday)

This is a meeting of the Washington Metro Literary Group, not of the Washington Philosophy Circle, but feel free to participate. Ralph Dumain (yours truly) will facilitate this meeting. Here is my announcement:

Ours many be the only literary body in Washington, DC celebrating the impending 250th birthday of William Blake (November 28), and we will do this by discussing his poetry next Tuesday at Teaism (8th & D Streets NW Washington, DC) from 7pm to 9pm. In April 2005 we discussed several poems from Blake's most celebrated work, the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. While Blake's prophetic books are saturated with his personal mythology and thus too daunting for the novice, his notebooks contain many outstanding poems sufficiently concise, accessible, and thought-provoking to warrant group discussion. I have selected a handful of these poems for our next session.

The poems and other relevant information can be found on my web page: William Blake's Manuscript Lyrics for Discussion in Commemoration of Blake’s 250th Birthday.

The first of these—"The Angel that presided o'er my birth"—is presented as an introduction to Blake's existential and political situation. The rest follow a roughly chronological order, but most can be discussed in whatever order fancy strikes. I suggest saving these two for last: "Mock on Mock on Voltaire Rousseau" and "The Crystal Cabinet". The last is especially difficult, and analysis of both would benefit from some prior knowledge of Blake's ideas. I will be happy to provide supplementary input throughout.

Blake's confident visionary artistic defiance of social oppression is expressed in his private notebooks with both solemnity and humor, as in his comic depiction of a visionary experience that transpires as he takes a dump in the woods, with this conclusion:

If Blake could do this when he rose up from shite
What might he not do if he sat down to write

— "When Klopstock England defied" (concluding verses; Poems from the note-book, 1793)

Thursday, June 9, 2005
Discussion topic: Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) [The Book of the Way and Its Nature/Power/Virtue], foundational text of Taoism (Daoism).

Our second meeting on this topic covered the same ground as the first, but with an amplified perspective. Both consisted substantially of a close reading of the first two chapters, in conjunction with discussion of the larger issues. See our yahoo discussion list for summaries. In this, the third session, we continued with the fundaments of Taoist cosmology: the nature of the Tao, the creation of being from non-being. We addressed the nature of this highly austere, abstract metaphysics, its usability and limitations, and its possible relations to positive (scientific) knowledge. We continued discussing translation problems, especially in connection with the damning sense of the sage conveyed in several chapters of many translations. I highly recommended the Allinson article as a way of straightening out these difficulties and fine-tuning one's logical sense of the sage and the Tao. D.C. Lau's translation (Penguin) proved to be very awkward, and we wondered about the extent to which Ursula Le Guin's elegant translation sanitized the text for political correctness. Another interpretative problem concerned the recommendations for governance. In the end, it looks like the doctrine undermines traditional authority while still using the existing social hierarchy as a template. We had time only to mention the chapters challenging traditional Confucian morality. We discussed yet again the ideological agendas of Westerners interested in Asian philosophies and religions, and questioned the relationships of ideas to feudal and modern contexts. We didn't have time to get through my proposed list of chapters. (See my list below.) We analyzed chapters 40, 42, 25, 3. We also didn't have time to address the question whether the Taoist cosmology is static or evolutionary, or to nail down the exact relationship of the sage to the Tao.


40: non-being
42: how Tao begat the 10,000 things
25: the cosmic order: great chain of being?
16: Nature is unchanging
70: the clarity and necessary obscurity of the doctrine

individual, social order & cosmos

15: sage doesn't seek change
21: follow Tao alone
29: can't improve the cosmos (applies also to governance & social order)
55: action contrary to Tao doesn't work, the individual's strength based on Tao
54: rectification of names? (governance & social order)
5: straw dogs
8: kindness (contradicts 5?)
37: non-action (wei wu wei)
49: impartiality, why the sage is good to everyone
79: impartiality & the good (paradox?)

unlearning conventional morality, return to original principle:


To find English translations online, begin with the Taoism Information Page. There are also a number of translations not to be found on the Internet. No translation is fully satisfactory, and those on the Internet don't seem to be the best. Some of us are using the translation (in hard copy only) by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. We need yet more and better translations to consult.

The problems of translation and interpretation are especially acute with this ancient Chinese text. One must also beware the ideological agendas of the commentaries attached to such texts by their Western proponents, which may detract from as well as illuminate the meaning of the texts.

This is the best article I've found on the subject to date:

Allinson, Robert E. "Moral Values and the Taoist Sage in the Tao de Ching," Asian Philosophy, Vol. 4, Issue 2, October 94, pp. 127-136.

I personally still have a decent amount of respect for the Dao De Jing, though I have far more reservations about it than I did thirty years ago. and I now have an analysis of its limitations. However, I find its ideological embedding in society, especially in contemporary Western societies, even more problematic. You need feel no obligation to pursue this angle as it is not the primary object of discussion, but if interested, you may wish to consult some of my web pages:

Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism: Selected Bibliography
Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography
Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West)

Thursday, June 2
Discussion topic: Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) [The Book of the Way and Its Nature/Power/Virtue]. Session 2. To be continued.

Monday, May 23
Discussion topic: Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) [The Book of the Way and Its Nature/Power/Virtue]. To be continued.

April 25, 2005
Discussion topics:
(1) Buddhism, Taoism, & Eastern mysticism: political underpinnings & appropriations in Asia & the West
(2) Large families vs. only children, upbringing, education & locale, solitude & loneliness

Note: Part of our discussion was the question of the possible political downside of Eastern philosophies, mysticism, and religion, usually presented in the West in an ahistorical, sanitized fashioned, retooled for a modern consumer society. My own once enthusiastic attitude to Daoism (Taoism) has been substantially modified with the passing of three decades.

March 28, 2005
Discussion topic: Medical ethics: separating conjoined (Siamese) twins & other life-and-death decisions
Briefing: R. Dumain on J.N. Mohanty's view of Indian philosophy
Proposed topic: What is art?

December 1, 2004
Discussion topics:
(1) The future of rationality in an irrational society
(2) The philosophy of dating

Washington Philosophy Circle
(inaugurated 28 April 2005)

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